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Brian Mullis:"The environmental and social justice movements are merging into a single movement that many characterize as the largest movement in the world"

The ECOCLUB Interview with Brian Mullis
Co-founder & President, Sustainable Travel International
Index of Interviews

Brian MullisBrian T. Mullis is the co-founder and president of Sustainable Travel International (STI), a non-profit organization with offices in the US and EU. STI is dedicated to promoting responsible travel and facilitate the travel and tourism industry's move toward sustainability by providing programs that help travellers and travel companies protect the environmental, socio-cultural and economic values of the places they visit. Mullis has over 20 years of experience in the travel and tourism industry. He began his career working in national parks in Wyoming, Montana and Utah. More recently, Mullis was the president and owner of The World Outdoors, an international travel company specializing in active holidays and ecotravel. During his career, he has assisted numerous travel companies of all sizes in the areas of sustainable and business development, sales, marketing, finance and management. Mullis has a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology with a focus on Business from Auburn University and holds a Master's Degree in Recreation Management from Springfield College. He spends his free time travelling abroad, exploring the backcountry and enjoying quality time with friends and family.

Sustainable Travel InternationalSustainable Travel International (STI) is a global leader in sustainable tourism development. The 501(c)(3) non-profit organization’s mission is to promote sustainable development and responsible travel by providing programs that enable consumers, businesses and travel-related organizations to contribute to the environmental, socio-cultural and economic values of the places they visit, and the planet at large.  STI's current priorities include developing, adopting, and marketing sustainable tourism standards and practices through Green.travel and the Sustainable Tourism Eco-Certification Program™ (STEP); providing educational resources to travellers and travel providers, and assisting them in making positive contributions to environmental conservation, cultural-heritage preservation, and local economic development; supporting the implementation of greenhouse gas reduction strategies and the use of carbon offsets, enabling travellers and travel providers to offset unavoidable greenhouse gas emissions; facilitating donations of financial resources, time, talent and economic patronage to help travellers and travel providers protect and positively impact cultures and environments around the world.

(The Interview follows:)

ECOCLUB.com: As the co-founder of a major international NGO promoting Sustainable Tourism, how satisfied are you with its progress in recent years?

Brian Mullis: Peter D. Krahenbuhl and I co-founded Sustainable Travel International (STI) in 2002.  Since that time, STI has evolved from a relatively unknown grassroots organization to a leading internationally recognized non-profit dedicated to sustainable travel and tourism development.  This process has been both very rewarding and very challenging. Our primary focus is on delivering and implementing result-oriented, market-driven approaches that are designed to empower consumers, travel-related companies, and destinations to support sustainability and generate tangible, measurable results.  We’ve also had a strong focus on collaborating with like-minded organizations and becoming financially sustainable through our own programming. 
 
ECOCLUB.com: Which country or countries in your view has been more successful in implementing a sustainable tourism policy framework and why?
 
Brian Mullis: I think it’s a bit too early to determine which countries are going to be successful and which ones are not.  Although Costa Rica is often cited as exemplifying ecotourism, the country has become a victim of its own success given the pressure for new development that isn’t necessarily sustainable.  It’s now focused on becoming the first carbon neutral company, which would set a new precedent globally.  Other countries that are actively engaging in sustainable tourism at a national level include Dominica, Bhutan, Ecuador, and Jordan, whereas the success of tourism certification in the United Kingdom, South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia is noteworthy.  
 
ECOCLUB.com: You have extensive experience of both for-profit and non-profit tourism organisations. Are there any significant differences (advantages, disadvantages) or are the two types gradually merging, through CSR, tax cuts, and an increasingly competitive NGO horizon in relation to donor funds?

Brian Mullis: Having a background in the private sector - I was an international tour operator for the better part of a decade - has given us a strong entrepreneurial focus.  We also understand what businesses in this sector and other sectors need.  For example, we ensure that we deliver a variety of benefits to our business clients in an effort to provide them with a solid return on investment. A significant part of our success stems from our ability to seamlessly integrate the programs and solutions we’ve developed into a company’s operations.  Having a first hand understanding of how our client’s internal operations and their sales and marketing systems work makes this process much easier and increases the likelihood of success.
 
The public (non-profit) and private sectors are similar in some respects and different in others.  In my opinion, there’s a great deal of competition for limited donor funding and not enough collaboration in the public (non-profit) sector.  This hinders the ability of many non-profit organizations to actualize their full potential. Another shortcoming is the lack of focus on becoming financially self-reliant – too many non-profits are dependent on donors and foundations, though this is starting to change as more for-profits are starting non-profits and vice versa.  Regardless, there is still a mindset of equating non-profits with wanting, if not needing, “hand outs”, so some companies would prefer to work with other for-profit companies. 
 
One of the primary differences between public and private companies is their bottom line focus.  For-profit companies inherently focus on making a profit, many without public financial disclosure and some at the expense of the environment and human rights.  Non-profits, on the other hand, should focus on maintaining positive cash flow, yet their financials are publicly disclosed so supporters can determine how much is going to their actual projects versus their overhead.  In addition, non-profits don’t have much of an incentive to capture as much money as possible to be distributed to owners or shareholders, since by law in the U.S. all the money has to stay within the organization and dedicated to the organization’s mission oriented activities. 

ECOCLUB.com: Though there are strong doubts and criticism from both mainstream and green commentators about the ethics and effects of Carbon Offsetting, STI has enthusiastically embraced it. Do you believe that it works in actually reducing carbon emissions, or is it a convenient means of generating donations from travellers and channelling them to good causes?

Brian Mullis: I think that the perception of our enthusiastically embracing offsetting may stem partly from our success and brand awareness in this arena. Globally there is an awareness that addressing the challenge of global climate change will require a sustained effort for many years to come. Supporting legislation that requires mandatory greenhouse gas reductions is the first best solution; our policies have to operate on the same timeframe even if our politics run on election cycles.  And, reducing CO2 emissions is the second best solution.  But, some emissions are unavoidable, and that’s when carbon offsets become part of the solution and that is how we’ve always positioned the opportunity. 
 
To address global climate change, we need access to energy sources that are reliable and reasonably affordable, that can be deployed quickly and easily, yet are also safe and politically and environmentally sustainable.  We also need to prime the economy for a surge in energy efficiency that will cut waste and improve energy productivity.  And, we need to put a price on greenhouse gas emissions by implanting cap-and-trade programs or taxing carbon.  In other words, we need to take a more holistic approach.  Carbon offsets are part of this equation because ideally they help to fund renewable energy and energy efficiency projects that otherwise wouldn’t exist.
 
There is also a significant educational benefit to offsetting.  Carbon footprint calculators have enabled everyone from the average consumer to multi-national corporations to internalize their personal climate impact through measurable quantification, as well as through utilizing conceptual equivalents.  For example, measuring your carbon footprint and offsetting that amount can be equated to taking a certain amount of vehicles off the road, whereas not offsetting or eliminating those activities is related to being personally responsible for putting that same amount of cars on the road.  In addition, the contentiousness of the topic has helped to catalyze other first best solutions.
 
Our position at STI is that we don’t want people to stop travelling; we just want them to be aware.  Companies engaged in sustainable tourism economically benefit the destinations they visit – many of which are dependent on tourism.  If people stop travelling, many tourism dependent country’s economies would collapse forcing many people to exploit their environmental resources, which isn’t in anyone’s best interest. At the same time, it is mandatory that negative impacts are not undervalued and addressed.

ECOCLUB.com: Is Sustainable Tourism a one-size concept that fits all destinations, cultures and regimes, or is "sustainability" a more or less "western" construct to counteract the effects of other western models such as industrial capitalism? And, as such more suitable to "western" countries?

Brian Mullis: No. We define “Sustainable Tourism” as a level of tourism activity that can be maintained over the long term because it results in a net benefit for the socio-cultural, economic, and natural environments of the area in which it takes place.  In order for this to happen, local stakeholders, particularly community leaders, need to have some control over - or stake in - tourism development.  Travel providers need to actively support financial sustainability in the destinations they serve and give back to them through the donation of financial resources, time, talent and economic patronage with a focus on the facilitation of self-reliance.  And, politicians need to implement legislation that favours sustainable development over short-sighted development with little to no environmental regulation.
 
ECOCLUB.com: With the cooperation of Universities, you have established distance-learning courses in sustainable tourism. Have you observed, a genuine interest from hard-pressed small sustainable tourism entrepreneurs in developing countries. Is online, distance-learning, the future for such an applied and outdoor science/art such as Tourism?
 
Brian Mullis: I think distance-learning is one approach to help build capacity.  The challenge is to lower the financial barriers to entry and make it as accessible as possible.  Ideally, the model should be set up as a ‘low margin, high volume’ model.  But, currently there’s not enough demand to support a model of this nature.  As a result, most distance learning programs in the tourism arena are prohibitively expensive for small entrepreneurs.  There’s also the issue of availability of and accessibility to internet connections and computers, as well as a need to provide more introductory information on customer service, administration, bookkeeping and the like.  For these reasons, STI is focused on taking a "train the trainer" approach whenever possible.  This is much more suitable for small to medium enterprises in developing countries because the approach is hands-on and more personalized in that courses are designed to meet the needs of specific audiences.
 
ECOCLUB.com: Should Sustainable Tourism Certification limit itself to measuring environmental impact, or should it also incorporate socio-political criteria? And what are the major obstacles preventing demand and supply of tourism certification, which after all still covers a tiny share of the tourism sector?

Brian Mullis: Sustainable Tourism Certification should take a triple bottom line approach, since environmental, socio-cultural and economic impacts are interconnected.  The major obstacles preventing demand and supply for tourism certification revolves around the fact that most tourism companies and consumers are defining what “green” means to them because until recently there weren’t any global baseline criteria for sustainable tourism.  The industry has been searching for practical applications of the definitions, and consumers, the industry and media have become sceptical of green claims.  Certifications through programs such as our Sustainable Tourism Eco-certification Program address the need for practical application through measurement, as well as credibility through verified self assessment and possible third party audits.  Yet, with many programs out there, the launch of the (Global) Sustainable Tourism Criteria initiative and global accreditation through the Sustainable Tourism Stewardship Council (STSC) will help to harmonize all of this and increase demand through brand awareness.  This has been the case with other regional and global labels such as Fair Trade products, Certified Organic food, etc. in helping to catalyze industry shifts, and it will happen within the tourism as well.

ECOCLUB.com: Based on your observations, as well as your studies in psychology, do we perhaps need to recognise that voluntary certification has failed, and then proceed to obligatory certification / environmental laws for all tourism businesses? Or is it a question of a lack of both tax incentives and of real interest from travellers when it comes to making travel decisions?

Brian Mullis: I think we have to acknowledge that the concept of certification in this industry was well ahead of its time.  The industry wasn’t ready for sustainable tourism certification ten years ago.  That has changed with demand stemming from the private and public sector, as well as the consumer marketplace.  The issue of greenwashing isn’t going to go away, so there’s clearly a need for third party verification and certification schemes.  That said certification isn’t going to be for everyone, which is why third-party peer review (e.g., www.aito.co.uk/corporate_Responsible-Tourism.asp) and sustainable tourism award programs are becoming increasingly popular. As I alluded earlier, global accreditation through the STSC will change everything and voluntary certification through international standards will prove itself once again.
 
ECOCLUB.com: You will probably agree that Sustainable Tourism, like all things eco, favours the small tourism guys & gals, whom the Internet has empowered and allowed them to compete with giants without intermediaries. How important is the Web in your work, and what do you make of Web 2.0 - is there a danger that it will destroy independent websites through trojan-horse fancy gadgets operated by the big players?

Brian Mullis: The internet certainly has levelled the playing field, making it easier for local tourism providers to connect directly with the travel market.  The challenge is staying up-to-date on the technology and utilizing tools like Web 2.0, social marketing, etc. to grow a business.  Fortunately, most search engine optimization and e-marketing strategies are relatively inexpensive to implement, so if a company has a strong value proposition and they’re utilizing these strategies effectively, they will continue to remain competitive.  You will see an example of this with the impending launch of Green.travel, our new consumer facing website.  I should also note that Sustainable Travel International was started on the web and was strictly a volunteer effort for the first few years. 

ECOCLUB.com: You have extensive outdoors experience in the US, what would be your favourite US destination, and why? And how could that destination be affected by the outcome of this years' elections? Is there a meaningful sustainable tourism lobby?

Brian Mullis: Although I’ve spent time in more than 30 countries, it was my goal to know my own country before travelling abroad.  I’ve lived in 11 states and spent time in all but one of the rest.  And, I can honestly say that I don’t have a favourite destination though I do have an affinity for the Pacific Northwest where I currently live.  Policies here and in the rest of the U.S. have an impact.  For example, the famous Salmon runs on the Columbia have all but disappeared, forcing leaders in multiple states to place a moratorium on fishing for certain species in the Pacific.  Agricultural legislation will continue to favour industrial producers unless changes are implemented to level the playing field and encourage local processing.  New renewable energy development is going to slow down unless political leaders demand the extension of federal tax credits and other incentives beyond 2008.  Ethanol is clearly not the answer; we need a real, comprehensive solution to the energy crisis inside and outside of America.    

ECOCLUB.com: Finally, what is your biggest aspiration?
 
Brian Mullis: My greatest aspiration is a first-hand understanding of the power of one – that if we’re not part of the solution, we’re likely to be part of the problem.  We can all make changes in our behaviour and lighten our footprints, which in turn can improve rather than diminish our quality of life.  Millions of people around the world are waking up to this simple fact.  At the same time, the environmental and social justice movements are merging into a single movement that many characterize as the largest movement in the world.  It’s organic, self-organized and is made up of the millions of us who want to make the world a better place.  This is all very inspiring, is great cause for optimism, and is reinforcing our efforts and strengthening our cause.
 
 ECOCLUB.com: Thank you very much!

 

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